The situation closely resembles another attack on Goma, four years ago, by Laurent Nkunda, a rebel also backed by Rwanda who led M23's predecessor group and who told me that he hoped to create a new country in eastern Congo called the "Republic of Volcanoes." Some 200,000 people had been displaced in that battle as fighting came right up to the city. In the end, Nkunda chose not to take Goma, and during the negotiations that followed his forces agreed to disband and join Congo's national army. This spring, however, some of those same fighters declared that the Congolese government had reneged on its promises and formed the M23 rebellion.
M23's and Nkunda's forces have been accused of grave human rights abuses, including mass rape (in one instance, of some 16,000 women in one weekend in Bukavu), massacres, and the recruitment of child soldiers. Bosco Ntaganda, an M23 leader, is wanted by the International Criminal Court for recruiting child soldiers. Congo issued an international arrest warrant in 2005 for Nkunda, citing war crimes, but he remains in secret detention in Rwanda, which has refused to hand him over to Congo.
Rwanda's support for the M23 rebellion stems from a mix of historical sympathies and financial interests. The M23 is composed mainly of Tutsi fighters who represent a historically marginalized ethnic group in eastern Congo. Several leaders of M23 and its predecessor rebel group had fought alongside Rwanda's now-president, Kagame -- who, like many of his senior aides, is also Tutsi.
Then there is also eastern Congo's immense mineral wealth, which Rwanda has illegally profited from for years since its invasion of Congo in 1996. Rwanda has made hundreds of millions of dollars -- probably much more -- by supporting rebel groups who control lucrative mines in Congo and by smuggling the minerals into Rwanda for export to world markets.
There is also history. Many Rwandans, including officials in government, believe that eastern Congo is a rightful part of Rwanda, taken away when European colonial powers carved up the continent in 1885 and made those rich, fertile lands a part of Congo. They see the M23 as righting this historical injustice, despite international laws to the contrary.
Rwanda's foreign minister, Louise Mushikiwabo, highlighted such sympathies this summer when she began a private diplomatic meeting, on the topic of the M23 rebellion, with a map of ancient Rwanda that encompassed much of eastern Congo, according to several diplomats who attended the event. Her point was that the region's history is complex, but it was only a logical step from there to assert that Rwanda exercised some right over Congolese land. Kagame, for his part, has remained oddly silent since the new surge of violence on his country's border, though he has previously refuted all allegations that his country supports the rebels. And Kagame has so far, despite international appeals, refused to condemn the M23 rebellion.
The rebels, however, insist that their movement is purely Congolese. Kazarama, the M23 spokesman, told me that the M23 is combating "years of poor governance, a lack of public services, and constant insecurity." When I asked where the M23 had obtained its sophisticated military equipment -- the U.N. has noted that it possesses 120 mm mortars and even night-vision goggles -- Kazarama said he had purchased them on the "black market in Dubai" and insisted that the weapons "had not come from Rwanda."
Rwanda, though it receives vast amounts of aid from Western countries, has remained a decisive force in Congo's destabilization. The vast majority of Congo's territory, despite being mineral-rich and open to pillage by other neighbors, is relatively peaceful. But Congo's border with Rwanda, its tiny neighbor, remains a flash point for new conflict.
In spite of the facts on the ground, Rwanda has a history of denial regarding its involvement in Congo. Throughout its 1990s invasion of Congo, Rwanda denied accusations of its presence on Congolese soil, even as photographs emerged of Kabarebe, Rwanda's current defense minister and operational commander of that Congo invasion, in Kinshasa, standing beside Congo's then-president, Laurent Kabila, whom Rwanda had helped put in power. For years, Rwanda also denied backing Nkunda's rebel forces, only to rein him in and secretly detain him in Rwanda, where he remains today. And now, President Kagame continues -- even angrily -- to deny his government's assistance to M23.
On Tuesday, as M23 rebels took control of Congo's border with Rwanda -- an event that should have caused concern -- news agencies reported that Rwandan soldiers and policemen "did not seem particularly nervous and no significant reinforcements were visible."